There’s a scene early on in Obvious Child, coming out tomorrow, where Jenny Slate (a.k.a. Marcel the Shell) is standing across the street from her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. It’s winter, she’s coatless, clutching a cup of coffee, bargaining with herself, “If that lady crosses the street, then I have to leave,” etc. The bit spirals until she gets what she’s there for: to catch a brutal glimpse of her ex with his new girlfriend and dog. It’s obviously funny, also a hair too real because, ugh, I would do (or have done) that.
At its briefest IMDB nugget, Obvious Child features Donna, a 28-year-old Brooklyn comedian whose boyfriend brutally dumps her in a bar bathroom. While in the throes of an all-too-identifiable emotional crisis, she has rebound sex that results in an unwanted pregnancy. The film’s been billed as a wry, honest comedy that embraces female gross-out humor à la Bridesmaids — but, more notably, has been called the first entry into the “abortion rom-com” canon.
Obvious Child doesn’t waste time hand-wringing. Donna, hovering somewhere between no-collar employment and plain unemployed never falters in her decision to abort. But the days leading up to her Valentine’s Day appointment (thanks, universe) create the opportunity to tell a small, resonant, funny story of personal growth.
The blunt take on the topic stems from writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s own discontent with the way conversations about abortion have been presented in other movies. Yes, this film talks about abortion. However, in the universe of the film, Donna’s decision is a stepping stone, not a milestone. It portrays a modern woman simply figuring her life out. “It’s a coming-of-age movie, but the age bracket has sort of changed,” Robespierre tells the Cut. “It’s not 16 to 20, it’s like, 25 to 30. It’s about finding confidence and losing confidence and finding it again, navigating the murky waters of unemployment, you know. It’s: ‘I was told I would have a career! Should I have a career? Why do I feel 10 steps behind everyone else?’”
Turns out, Robespierre has written the perfect Saturn Return movie. For the non-astrologically inclined, Saturn Return refers to the first time the planet completes its cycle through your birth chart and returns to the spot it occupied when you were born. Some people call it your cosmic bat mitzvah, but it can also usher in a major life crisis, depending on how you roll — either way, it’s that tumultuous time from 28 to 30, right before you’re considered a full-blown adult by the universe’s standards. Drew Barrymore, Gwen Stefani, and Susan Miller have all openly discussed it at one time or another.
The best of the Saturn Return genre includes Reality Bites, Singles, Bridesmaids, Lola Versus, even Blue Valentine to a certain, soul-crushing extent —all of which feature main characters who fall apart for a brief but intense period before recovering. In my experience, even the getting better is touch-and-go: It’s possible to wake up in the morning as a hot mess, and end the day as a superstar — or vice versa. Let’s generously call it “evolving.”
Lately, I’ve turned to Saturn Return films, which are more effective than self-help guides, if only because they help normalize the kind of behavior that makes even the sanest of people think they have lost their minds. I like them because they aren’t didactic — it’s just one person’s experience told in a relatable way. Which Robespierre made one of her goals with Obvious Child. “I mean, I don’t know anything about lessons because I’m so stupid, I cannot be a teacher,” she jokes, “but I feel like to see on the screen a character that feels a little closer to yourself, who’s not perfect, who’s complex and makes mistakes but also doesn’t pretend to be okay, like, ‘I’m just gonna put my Prada shoes on even though I’m supposed to be somebody who’s struggling’ — that’s not a realistic character or least one that I think is realistic.”
Donna has horrible, irrational, ridiculous, self-sabotaging moments — she spends most of the movie in an evolving state of emotional crisis, but she’s self-aware enough to know it’s not the end of the world. She knows that the resolution of this one situation (unwanted pregnancy, complicated romance) is not going to be the end to her problems. “You’re still gonna feel bad, and you’re still gonna feel meek and passive in your life, and it doesn’t end when you turn 30, either, or when you get the things that you’re ‘supposed’ to get,” says Robespierre. “But I think by the end, she’s at peace, and she knows that in that moment at least, her meekness is lifted.”